City Buses

By-Anil Sebastian Pulickel, NLSIU, Bangalore.

There is something about misery that bonds human beings together. Especially when the misery does not affect any of them.

The other day, I had the delightful but physically somewhat jarring experience of taking a city bus after a long while. Now, the buses here are famous, though for the wrong reason. Any driver with enough hours on the city roads can tell you that in their particularly horrid nightmares, the devil takes the form of a humongous, speeding red metal box. And when the khakhi-uniformed driver flashes that pitying smile through the front windscreen – that’s when they wake up screaming.

You see, buses here do not follow rules. To even suggest that possibility would invite scorning, ‘who’s-this-naive-idiot’ looks from the bus driving community. A combination of less than ideal road conditions, high road rage, and stiff competition between the different buses to get the maximum passengers on board means a cut-throat race on the road, unfortunately, often literally. No wonder then that for any commuter on the road in a less than suicidal frame of mind, the glint of metallic red in the rear-view mirror means only one thing : GET OFF THE ROAD !!!!! Elite fighter pilots could not have swerved, dived and rolled to evade contact so effectively.

All these thought were passing through my head as I sat in the very last row of the bus. So far along the journey, we had narrowly avoided scraping two cars, knocking the helmeted head off a biker, and reducing a police jeep to four angry policemen and a rubble ( yes, the bus driver gets points for style ). That’s when I noticed another interesting thing in the bus.

People on a city bus do not like each other. Or so it seems. Talking to a fellow passenger is way out of question. And when a passenger boards a bus at a stop, he always moves towards that clutter of seats where nobody is sitting. From a forces and statics point of view, I guess it makes sense to balance the distribution of passengers all over the bus. I mean, if the roaring big monster that has put so many puny vehicles out of business were to finally meet its demise by toppling after too many passengers sat on one side, that would be just too incongruous. The driver would probably have whipped out his pocket knife and committed seppuku. Even I would have been ashamed.

But somehow, I did not think that it was such a noble sacrifice of joyful camaraderie for the sake of pragmatism that had prompted my fellow passengers to sit as far apart as possible from each other. Nope, this was all about human nature. Fundamentally, we are born to be hostile towards our brethren. We may respect social custom just enough to do our duty and smile and make small talk with people, but oh boy, is it difficult to hide our deep inner loathing for anything that looks like us ! And with the satisfied smirk of the philosopher, I leaned back in my seat, assured in the knowledge that nothing was going to break down the walls of indifference that were innately built between all of us. If only I had known that one man was about to change all that.

The messiah in question happened to be a young man, and his stage of life is about as far as I know about him. That, and the fact that he has a motorbike without a silencer. Now, I hate people who ride motorbikes without silencers, but that’s a different story. This young man was riding down the opposite lane of the road my bus was on. The light had just turned green for both lanes, and the hero happened to be at the front of the mass of vehicles waiting on his side. This pre-eminent position entitled him to a free stretch of road, about a hundred metres in length, till the last vehicle of the crawl up ahead. But to certain minds, a hundred metres of road is the same as the Monaco F1 circuit. And dirty beat-up motorbikes are made to show the world the meaning of speed. And so, with a roar that turned every head towards his direction (courtesy the lack of a silencer), our protagonist and his dream machine took down the road.

What his so-far rather imaginative mind could not visualise was that roads in my city are not well maintained. They have massive potholes, to be more specific. And it was precisely into such a pothole that his front wheel went and fell. The bike jumped unexpectedly, and the rider was taken by surprise. It must have been to a very large extent, for he was sent flying off the seat into the air while his bike continued on without him. I doubt it was a matter of consolation to him that his bike didn’t stay on in the race much longer either – it crashed to the ground barely a second after our protagonist’s limp body did, adding a metallic finale to the orchestra of a human body striking pavement and the following groans. Almost like a cymbal, that dark part of my brain that sees musical genius in the most inappropriate places reasoned.

But the man was alright. He sat up on the road, his helmet still on him, trying to figure what had just happened. And it was then that he looked around and saw motionless vehicles and open-mouthed people looking at him from every direction. Even through the tinted visor of his helmet, I sensed an unhealthy shade of crimson pervade his face. This guy will never ride without a silencer again, I told myself. To his credit, he did his best to get up, straighten his bike and limp off as if being tossed five feet into the air from a speeding bike was something he did before dinner every night. Exit the hero from the range of view of the passengers of the bus. That was when the true consequences of his antics showed through.

It started with the old man with the grey beard. He had been sitting on the left side initially, and the accident had occurred on the right side, where I was sitting, one row behind this old man. With a concerned expression and the agility of a baby monkey, he had leaped practically into the lap of the person sitting in front of me to get a better view of the proceedings. Now he got up, faced his fellow travellers, and proclaimed, “He only got what he deserved. Speeding on city roads like that !” The man in front of me, relieved to have got back possession of his lap, chirped in, “But with roads like this, it’s the government who should be blamed” The teenager a few rows ahead had no interest in who was responsible. “Such a cool bike, and it had to happen to that!” he moaned. And that was about as much as I followed, for the next instant, everyone on the bus had an opinion or analysis to contribute. Old man with grey beard had found a friend in a middle aged man who shared the belief that youngsters bring doom onto themselves, and was chatting away. The man in front of me was lecturing on everything from corruption in the Roads department to the lack of sufficient budget to repair the roads. “Such a cool bike ….”, the teen continued to moan without variety.

I was amazed. A few minutes back, these people would have sooner died than talk to each other. One accident later, they were sharing opinions and arguing like good friends do after watching a cricket match. I heard passing references to everything from the role of cinema in influencing the driving patterns of youngsters to old relatives who had met misfortune on the road. Now understandably, I was not happy – my newly formulated theory of human interaction was being shredded right in front of my face.

Thankfully, a few minutes later, things were back to normal – people had settled down, the bus was racing and cutting lanes indiscriminately, and vehicles were once again performing stunts to get out of the way of our bus. And that was when the one person on the bus who had not talked so far, apart from me, delivered his summary of the entire event. The bus driver, his hands still on the steering wheel of the speeding bus, turned back and faced all of us. “I believe”, he said gravely, “that the fundamental problem is that people have no respect for road rules these days. Such a danger to everyone.” And with a disapproving shake of his head, he went back to driving his beloved red city bus.

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